A sandwich-board sign outside the main entrance of the large green building on Hurley Mountain Road just off Route 28 announces “Eye Exams Tuesdays.”
Lemon drops and other penny candy can be found on the first long counter inside the store entrance, not only with two people behind the counter handling the cash registers but also with peanuts, lotions, Dr. Bronner’s soap, small lanterns, freeze-dried ice-cream sandwiches, a copy of the local film Lost Rondout, and other assorted small items. Meanwhile, the cold-beverage coolers to the left offer water and hemp-infused beverages from Colorado. There’s other stuff near the entrance, too.
Welcome to Kenco, the 35-year-old family-owned work-and-play outfitter that had its beginning as a distributor of industrial safety products in the Woodstock home and basement of Harry and Libby Kennedy. “People would show up at out house to buy things at all hours,” Bill Kennedy, now the business owner but then a teenager, told a journalist in 2014. “We had inventory stashed everywhere. We were bringing people into the living room and selling them gloves.”
Later, the business moved to the building later occupied by Folk Art at the corner of Rock City Road and Lower Byrdcliffe.
Things have changed a lot since then, but plus ça change ….
As you move into the store past time-measuring devices, guns and axes, you encounter boots, shoes and socks in the extensive footwear department (a market, Bill Kennedy says, that’s shared locally with Montano’s in Saugerties and Pegasus in Woodstock, Rhinebeck and New Paltz). A few walking sticks stand next to a sign that says, “Visit our upstairs winter sports center.” You decide instead to explore the first floor further.
The center of the store is dominated by rack after rack of mostly seasonal outerwear, men’s and women’s, and a smaller amount of working clothes that are an authentic nod to the original business.
Walking into the depths of the store, you notice three doorways off to the left side. Through the first one, you pass Orvis fishing flies, rods, waders and other items into a small office space, and then to another small room containing a modest amount of discounted clothing.
The second doorway starts with an office marked “Kenco Custom” that leads into a small embroidery factory, with caps, patches and accessories for organizations and businesses. This room holds the equipment and employs the personnel of the former Stucki Embroidery business in Boiceville. Beyond the Stucki space in this labyrinthine arrangement comes another room with a nifty and compact Brother machine, newly purchased, that can print full-color direct-to-garment designs on clothing and other surfaces. In the same room is the more usual paint-splattered large wheel-like screen-printing device that imprints one color at a time. On one side of the room, what looks like a loading dock has been partially converted to other uses.
The third doorway, marked “Optical Shop,” leads to two rooms, a comfortable and relatively uncluttered first one displaying eyeglasses and the other where eye examinations, office work and other activities take place. That explains the sandwich-board sign at the entrance.
It’s time to visit the upstairs winter sports center.
Dave Ryan from Saugerties, who works upstairs, says he’s sometimes asked why Kenco decided to put the kayaks upstairs. “Why, the downstairs was already full,” he explains, deadpan. Ryan is only half-joking.
Kenco’s country-general-store style and family atmosphere has enabled it over the past 35 years to build its brand by mixing quality merchandise in non-traditional ways. In the face of the steady growth of the sports-and-recreation space, Kenco’s add-on strategy has enabled it to expand its market niches. Kennedy and his staff listen to their customers.
The national chains find it hard to match Kenco’s level of detailed attention. Particularly when it comes to the natural world, the Hudson Valley-Catskills region has territorial pride. When it comes to serving the purchaser in the work-and-play marketplace, “Buy Local” has particularly powerful resonance. Everything in this store represents a celebration of local use, which puts Kenco in a strong position to survive category-killer national competition.
Surfboards, kayaks and canoes, skis, snowshoes, sleds, bows, climbing equipment and every imaginable accessory are packed into the upper floor of Kenco. The archery range on one side, long as a bowling alley, is the sole space that’s not crowded with merchandise, though some is stacked against one wall. On the opposite side of the space, past such things as hammocks, sleeping bags and tents, compasses, flashlights and tinder sticks, a collection of buckles, straps and ropes, cutlery, a few back-country utensils and freeze-dried foods (like chipotle beef and pork sticks), mosquito repellant and tush wipes, back supports, ponchos, paddles and trekking poles, is a warren of small offices. Not just piles of paper but file drawers without cabinets sit in the middle of the floor of one ex-kitchen, plus copy machines, stacks of letters, kitchen cabinets and photos of babies. Bill Kennedy’s office, shared with three others, is in a nearby high-ceilinged room.
According to Kennedy, the entire Kenco store, which did $4 million in business last year, has 22,000 square feet of floor space and currently employs 28.
As a young man, Bill Kennedy considered a variety of careers — firefighter, veterinarian, commodities trader, golf pro. He and his wife toured the country in a VW bus in 1982. He worked with his parents selling safety equipment, mostly wholesale, and started selling quality work clothes. When the Rock City space filled up, he bought the present site and began building. The people he employed, often devotees of particular sports, brought their expertise to Kenco.
As Kennedy tells it, he bought Catskill Forest Sports because owner Kevin McCabe persisted in telling him he should buy it. Besides, it diversified the business with skiing, snowboarding and archery. More recently, he got into the embroidery business because the Stucki equipment was about to be sold at auction, leaving several longtime employees without jobs.
The next major steps will be improving the Kenco website, adding new customer contacts, filling in some of the product lines, maybe bringing in another couple of brands.
Would he consider buying anyone else’s business? It would have to be the right fit, he responds. But Bill Kennedy wouldn’t rule it out.